"Everything that you dream of back in my day was playing for the Yankees and winning the World Series, and I got to do that."
Mike Heath is a dude you want on your side.
The hard-nosed catcher came up with the 1978 Yankees and was part of their World Series championship team. He also handled a great young staff in Oakland as the starting catcher for Billy Martin and his great early-80s A’s teams.
During Sparky Anderson’s last great run as Tigers manager, Heath was there behind the plate. Even in Heath’s final season, he was a 36-year-old veteran backup on the young Braves team that shocked baseball by making an improbable run to the World Series to kick off a dominant era of Atlanta Braves baseball.
We want Heath on our side too, so he joins us for this week’s edition of Spitballin.’
Fans of a certain age remember Mike Heath really well. He was one of those guys who seemed to be in every pack of baseball cards, he always had one of the best throwing arms among MLB catchers and he was the Tigers go-to guy behind the plate in RBI Baseball for Nintendo.
Prior to his big league career, Heath was an incredible athlete growing up in Florida. He was so good, he had multiple scholarship offers to play college football as a linebacker, including one from Bear Bryant at Alabama.
However, when the Yankees drafted Heath in the second round in 1973, he chose baseball.
Heath’s athleticism served him well in the Majors. Originally drafted as a shortstop, he was converted to catcher after a couple of years in the minors and made the adjustment without a hitch. In the Majors, Heath played every position except pitcher.
In fact, in 1987 he played all eight defensive positions in one season. It’s an accomplishment that happens every so often – but very rarely – if ever, has it been done by someone who was primarily a catcher.
Let’s all get ready for some 1980s nostalgia as we go Spitballin’ with Mike Heath.
“Dick Howser said, “You played football?” I said, “Yessir.” Bear Bryant goes, “He was 5’11”, 155 pounds in high school. He hit like he was 6’2”, 230.” He looked at me and said, “Son, I couldn’t have made you 6’2”, but I coulda made you 230.”
Thanks for coming Spitballin’ today, Mr. Heath. I grew up watching baseball in the 1980s and always remember you as one of the tough, hard-nosed players in the league. Let’s start before that though. Can you talk about what baseball was like for you as a kid?
I didn’t study the game as a kid like a lot do today, but my dad and I would watch the games on Saturdays and we had a good time doing that. I was mostly one of those kids who was always outside playing. I grew up in the 1960s and back then we just were always outside playing or doing something.
My favorite player growing up was Harmon Killebrew. Maybe it was partially his name, but I loved watching him hit. Every time we’d play ball in the neighborhood, I was always Harmon Killebrew.
That’s a great role model to have. You were a great football player too. What led you to choose the path of baseball over football?
It was difficult to eventually choose because I had quite a few scholarships to go play college football and baseball. One of the biggest colleges I could have gone to play for was Alabama and Bear Bryant. But being the number two pick by the Yankees, I felt that was going to be my best avenue for a professional career.
Those are two great options. Going to play for the Yankees or going to play for Bear Bryant.
One of my first couple of games with the Yankees, I was out taking batting practice and I look over in the stands. There weren’t any fans there yet and I see Bear Bryant talking to Dick Howser. Dick Howser calls me over and asks if I knew who this was. I said, “Yessir, that’s Mr. Paul Bear Bryant.”
In his deep Bear Bryant voice he goes, “Heath, how you doin’ son?” I said, “Good Mr. Bryant.” He looked at Dick Howser and goes Dick, “You guys made your phone call to him and got him to sign before I got to make my phone call to him.” Dick Howser said, “You played football?” I said, “Yessir.” Bear Bryant goes, “He was 5’11”, 155 pounds in high school. He hit like he was 6’2”, 230.” He looked at me and said, “Son, I couldn’t have made you 6’2”, but I coulda made you 230.”
The Yankees drafted you as a shortstop but converted you to catcher after a couple of seasons in the minors. Can you talk about getting drafted and your position change?
Pretty much every team was scouting me at my high school Legion games. The Yankees were probably last on the list of teams that would talk to me. They never communicated with me or my dad. So, when the Yankees chose me, it was quite a surprise. It was pretty well known in the community that I’d be a number one or two pick and I ended up being number two. But the surprise was the team that drafted me.
I caught a little bit as a kid. I really liked catching, but that was the last time I caught. Most of the time growing up I was the shortstop or centerfielder. Shortstop really seemed to be my forte. But when they asked me to switch in the minors, making that transition was easy for me. For some reason, being able to receive the ball and play the position came easy. The funny thing about it was that I only really caught in the minors for a year and a half before they called me to up catch for the Yankees.
What was it like to get that call?
It was after a game and we were in West Haven, Connecticut. I was with my wife Linda. Several of us would go out after games to a place called The Ground Round. Dennis Sherrill and his wife were there. Rick Stenholm and Chris Welsh were there too. We were all sitting and watching the Yankee game. Thurman Munson wasn’t catching, and I think Fran Healy got hurt. They put in Cliff Johnson, a guy who always treated me great.
Cliff made a couple of errors and Rick Stenholm said, “Heath, you know they’re gonna call you up to the Big Leagues now.” We all started laughing and I said they’d call up Jerry Narron from AAA. We finished eating and went home. It was about 12:30 and I was about ready to fall asleep when the phone rang. It was the General Manager of the West Haven Yankees. He said, “Pack your bags, you’re going up.” I said, “What? I don’t want to go up to AAA. I don’t want to move across the country to go play AAA, I like it here.” He goes, “No, you’re going to the Big Leagues, Mike!”
We had this little studio apartment at the time, and we were happy as all get out. We had our little puppies running all over the place and we were just so happy. The next morning, we got picked up and taken to Yankee Stadium.
You weren’t just called up to any team, you were called up to the 1978 Yankees; The Bronx Zoo. What was it like to be a young kid and get called up to that team, where you had Reggie, Thurman, Steinbrenner, Goose, Nettles and all those guys? How did they treat you?
Everybody was very kind and if I needed something, the players looked after me. They helped me with rides or whatever it was. They either were reaching in their pocket to help you or doing just about anything to help you. It was really great how they treated me.
That’s great to hear. What was it like to put the Pinstripes on for the first time?
I got dropped off at Yankee Stadium and went to the front office to report. They took me down and walked me into the clubhouse. The door opened and you think about all the players who ever put a uniform on for the New York Yankees. You can go on down the list.
You’re in the clubhouse with Thurman and Lou Piniella, Ron Guidry and Catfish Hunter. Then you think of the guys from the past like Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, Mickey Mantle, Roger Maris, Whitey Ford. You can go on down the line and I just can’t believe I’m there. Pete Sheehy, the clubhouse manager came to me and shook my hand. He said, “There’s your locker, right there, kid.” I look and it’s got my name on the locker and it was just unbelievable.
Billy Martin was still managing the team when you got called up. What were your first impressions of him?
I was sitting at my locker and I hear some loud voices coming from this room. I hear someone say, “We don’t need no rookie catcher, we need pitching on this team!” A few minutes later, it calmed down and all the reporters come walking out past me. Some talked to me and I gave all the traditional answers like, “I’m just happy to be here. It’s just a dream come true.”
A few minutes later after all the press is gone, Billy Martin comes walking out of his room and says, “Hey Mike, I’m glad to see you. We could really use a catcher like you up here!” It was Billy who was saying he didn’t need no rookie catcher a few minutes before then he comes out and says that to me. But I loved playing for Billy Martin, I could tell you that.
I’m sure you did. You seem like his type of player.
You know, I got traded to Texas and then got traded over to Oakland. One night I was over at the Oakland Hyatt and there was Billy Martin sitting at the bar. This was in 1980. I went up to him and said, “Hey Billy, Mike Heath. I really loved playing with you with the Yankees. Thanks for everything you did for me.” He said, “Heath, you’ll be playing for me sooner than you think, son.” I just said, “I want to thank you for everything, Billy.” The next year the A’s hired him and I got to play for him again.
That A’s team was really good too. Why do you think Billy had so much success wherever he went?
I thought that Billy was always three or four steps ahead of the managers on the other team. They’re making moves and he’s already had the game planned out. He could make adjustments on the fly really well. I felt like I was his type of player.
He demanded 100% out of everybody. He wanted you to play hard and go about your business and I think he got a lot of respect that way. There might be a lot of guys who didn’t like playing for Billy, but I would run through a wall for him. I really loved playing for the man.
Before we talk more about the A’s. I wanted to ask you what it was like playing in the 1978 World Series as just a young guy.
Everything that you dream of back in my day was playing for the Yankees and winning the World Series, and I got to do that. I only played in 33 games that year, but I was a big part of the team and that’s how the players made me feel. To be able to be a New York Yankee and have a World Series ring from the Yankees was just unbelievable as a kid and being an adult today, it still means a lot to me.
You got your first full-time starting job with the A’s in the early 80s. Those were some great teams with some incredibly talented guys. What was your experience like with the A’s?
I got there in ’79 and we were just a bunch of young guys that worked together and learned the Big Leagues together. Rickey Henderson was there and Dwayne Murphy, who is my best friend to this day. But we were young and learning and when Billy came in, he added that spark that we needed to believe in ourselves. He looked at this team and saw the potential. He taught us the game a lot more than what we thought we knew. He really lit that spark in the fans and that team in 1981 and it was great for us to win.
Such an exciting brand of baseball too. That strike season in 1981 you guys had the best record in the American League.
In the past, fans used to come out to watch the New York Yankees and Boston Red Sox. We’d pack the stadium when they were in town and when they weren’t, we didn’t have anyone in the stands. By 1981, the fans were coming out to watch us, not the Yankees or Red Sox.
The fans really stuck by us. In 1981 when we were winning, they were in love with us. You have to give the A’s fans credit for hanging with the organization after ’74 when there were down periods. But the fans stuck by the A’s and we brought life back to the Coliseum in 1981.
Great way to put it. That team really brought life to the sport and had some dynamic players. Even guys besides Rickey Henderson. Who were some of the other guys you enjoyed playing with?
Dwayne Murphy for sure. He was the best centerfielder in the game. He had six straight Golden Gloves. He played shallow and knew how to play the hitters, how our pitchers were gonna throw and how to move the outfield around. Murph was awesome with that.
In fact, the way we met was my first day when I got there in ’79. Our manager Jim Marshall comes up to me and asks if I could play the outfield. I said, “Oh yessir, I played a lot in the minor leagues coming up.” He says, “Good, you’re gonna be the starting left fielder tomorrow.” Murph was standing there and he comes up to me and says, “You ain’t never played the outfield before!” I said, “You’re right dude.” He started laughing and said, “Just watch me and I’ll move you around.” That’s how we met. He and I are still great friends today.
We talked before about Billy Martin, so how did it compare playing with another great in Sparky Anderson when you went over to the Tigers?
When Sparky was younger with the Reds, he was a fiery guy, but by the time he was with the Tigers he was more subdued. But he was a very intelligent guy and was really good for us. He would put the lineup out there. If there was a problem, he’d address it and let the players play. Sparky was really good about calling you into the office and telling you what he expects out of you. I respect Sparky tremendously. Sparky Anderson, Billy Martin and Bobby Cox were the best managers I ever had.
You caught some great pitchers throughout your career. Who were some of the guys on those early A’s teams and Tigers teams you enjoyed catching for?
Rick Langford in Oakland was one of the great guys. He was a control pitcher, kind of like a Catfish Hunter. He’d hit his spots and if he missed, he’d miss off the plate instead of on the plate. Then catching a guy like Jack Morris. He was just a bulldog and went right after you with his forkball.
Those guys were in control of a game and didn’t want to come out. You liked their tenacity; they had the mentality that this game was theirs to win or lose. That’s why you like catching those guys. There are guys that look to go five good innings and let the bullpen take it from there. I would rather have the bulldog mentality in a pitcher.
We talked before about your athleticism, and you did something that I don’t think has been done too often in baseball history. With your primary position being catcher, you played all eight defensive positions in one season. How does something like that happen?
I’m not a guy that talks about myself too much, but I was pretty proud as a player to give my manager that kind of versatility. I felt a manager could feel comfortable putting me in a position and not worry. I took a lot of pride in that. It was quite the honor to be able to do that.
It makes me feel good that I was able to do that for a manager. The proudest I was with all of that was starting a game in centerfield, the position my best friend Dwayne Murphy dominated his whole career. To be able to start in centerfield for a game like him meant a lot to me.
We had a couple of guys hurt that day, Chet Lemon was hurt, and I told Sparky I could play center and he said, “That’s my plan.” He had no reservations about putting me out there.
It’s been great to reminisce about your career. I grew up watching baseball in the 1980s and can relate so well to your stories. My last question is open-ended, do you have any final reflections looking back on your career?
I think if I had to wish anything about my career it’s that I wish I could have tried to been more of a pull hitter. I had a couple of years where I hit 13 home runs and I think I could have done more of that. I tried to do what the team needed me to do and a lot of times, that was giving myself up. I was always that guy who came up with a guy on second and no outs and made sure I got him over because I felt that’s what my job was as the eight or nine hitter. I took pride in that, but I wish I would have tried to be a little more aggressive at the plate sometimes.
Another thing I think about is that I wish I could have had the chance to play all nine positions in one game. I think that would have been really cool to do and I know I could have done it. I just never had a manager give me the chance.